Woodstock Foundation dispute continues with charges of misinformation

By Mike Donoghue, Standard Correspondent

The management teams for the Woodstock Inn & Resort and the Billings Farm & Museum are finding themselves in a battle of words with the former longtime chair of the Woodstock Foundation.

It comes as the businesses brace for the start of the onrush from the tourist season. The Billings Farm & Museum officially opens for the season on Monday. 

Ellen Pomeroy

Former Foundation Chair Ellen R.C. Pomeroy sent an email letter to a large number of employees at the Billings Farm & Museum on March 15, expressing concern about what she believed is ongoing misinformation that management has been disseminating about the civil lawsuit she filed along with former Vice Chair Sal Iannuzzi earlier this year.

A rebuttal email was sent to Pomeroy signed by “Billings Farm & Museum Managers and Leadership” that asked her to refrain from emailing its staff. The group did not provide names, but it involves more than 10 people, a spokesman said Tuesday.

The note from the Farm & Museum indicated it had “candid conversations with our board and internal teams.” The note also told Pomeroy her email “impedes the forward progress and healing we are going through as we get ready to start our new season.”

Pomeroy, an original Foundation member and chair for the last nine years, followed up with an identical letter four days later to the Woodstock Inn & Resort employees.

Interim President Elaine Olson for the Inn & Resort also sent a response to Pomeroy asking her to refrain from sending emails to its employees. Olson then sent an email to employees claiming Pomeroy’s letter was “a continuation of a public relations campaign of misrepresentations and false claims that have been made over the last few months.”

Pomeroy said in an interview this week with the Vermont Standard that she stands by her letter and lawsuit. She said she was trying to offset false information that had been presented both in letters and in meetings for employees.

At the center of the heated dispute is the effort undertaken by Iannuzzi and Pomeroy last year to investigate and address widespread employee complaints about workplace problems, the lawsuit said. They included sexual discrimination, and malfeasance by trustees, officers and management at the Woodstock Inn and Resort, the lawsuit said.

Iannuzzi’s investigation soon spread to the Billings Farm & Museum, where similar complaints began to pile up, the lawsuit notes.

Pomeroy and Iannuzzi said they also learned that concerns by workers were often shared with the target of the complaint — leading to retribution against the employee, the lawsuit noted.

The complaints included having no place to turn for employee help. One complaint focused on an employee having to put up with somebody in Human Resources using the “N-word” frequently. Another involved a manager leaving a dead rat on an employee’s car. Others involved female employees subjected to recurrent, offensive sexual comments and behavior by both members of management and co-employees.

Opposing trustees on the Foundation board were unhappy with the investigation by Iannuzzi, who first heard complaints in May 2022. He later told Pomeroy about them in June 2022. The other board members secretly moved to oust Pomeroy and Iannuzzi as chair and vice chair and ultimately from the board. Unwarned and unauthorized meetings were held, the lawsuit maintains.

Pomeroy and Iannuzzi filed their 31-page lawsuit in Vermont Superior Court in Woodstock initially in January both as individuals and derivatively on behalf of the Woodstock Foundation Inc. and Woodstock Holdings LLC. They later added defendants and more claims based on the new actions of the remaining board members.

The trustee/defendants: James Sligar, Michael D. Nolan, John T. Hallowell, Douglas R. Horne, David M. Simmons, William S. Moody, Gail Waddell and Angela K. Ardolic. Also named as defendants are The Woodstock Foundation Inc. and WRC Holdings LLC.

The individual trustees named as defendants later filed a counterclaim against Pomeroy and Iannuzzi maintaining they were guilty of misconduct. They have not filed a written answer in court to the charges filed by Pomeroy and Iannuzzi.

The remaining trustees hired a New York City law firm to conduct an investigation into the complaints that Iannuzzi and Pomeroy had received and to also investigate the two of them for possible misconduct.

The defendants announced recently that the investigation found no systemic employee discrimination. They did call into question the actions of Iannuzzi, Pomeroy and one of the early whistleblowers Anna Berez. The defendants claim Iannuzzi and Berez had an inappropriate relationship, a claim denied by both of them and Pomeroy. 

Pomeroy in her 2 ½ page letter to employees, said it was hard to ignore the employee complaints. She noted it wasn’t just 2 or 3 disgruntled employees, but rather more than 25. The list mushroomed later to over 40 employees, she said.

The staff members at both the Resort and Farm spoke “about their harassment, gender discrimination, LGBTQ discrimination, low wages and distant, disinterested management.” Those were issues that needed to be addressed, she said.

The lawsuit and the ongoing battle of words have provided a special inside look for the general public into the operation and management of one of the most important businesses in Windsor County. It has avoided most public scrutiny through the years. 

The Foundation and Holdings play a leading role in the operation of the Woodstock Inn and Resort, the Woodstock Country Club and the Saskadena Six Ski Area (formerly Suicide Six), along with the Billings Farm and Museum. About 600 people are employed through the businesses.

The not-for-profit Foundation was created by Laurence S. Rockefeller and Mary French Rockefeller in 1968 to provide philanthropic support to the Woodstock community and to own and operate Billings Farm & Museum. It was set up for charitable and educational purposes.

Pomeroy was a former associate of Rockefeller — for more than 16 years as a member of his office and later as Executor of his estate. She also was a member of the WRC Holdings Board, which is the separate board overseeing the Inn & Resort.

The Rockefellers provided the initial funding for the Foundation’s substantial endowment. The current value for the benefit of the Billings Farm is estimated between $40 million and $43 million, the lawsuit notes. The endowment to benefit the Park is estimated at between $13 million and $15 million, court records show. 

Ready to open

Business will begin to pick up in the coming weeks and months. The Billings Farm & Museum was scheduled to hold its all-staff kickoff meeting on Wednesday as the Standard prepared to go to press.

The Farm & Museum are scheduled to open for the season on Monday, April 3 with the annual Baby Animal Celebration set for April 7 and 8, according to Michelle Adams, executive vice president of operations & engagement.

The Farm & Museum has seen a number of recent resignations on the heels of the public feud and the business on the verge of opening for the summer. They involve several management posts, including the farm to table manager and the gift shop manager. 

Adams acknowledged there are always departures and new additions in the hospitality world. 

“We are… excited to have just welcomed a new Programs & Operations Manager, and are looking forward to adding a new gift shop manager and farm to table manager, hiring for the newly created role of curatorial manager, and a director of HR, which is a new role that will be part of our leadership team,” Adams said through a public relations spokesman.

The statement said that out of about 50 seasonal educational and interpretation staff members, only one is not returning for this season.